GBIF validation notes

The basic idea is to search GBIF with a taxon name and rank to find if there is a match and then the taxonomic status of the match. GBIF has the following status codes:

doubtful, accepted, homotypic synonym, synonym,
heterotypic synonym, proparte synonym, misapplied

Misapplications and synonyms always have a suggested accepted usage, doubtful taxa never do. However, doubtful taxa typically still have a taxonomic hierarchy and can be encountered pretty much anywhere on the rank walk to the root.

We want three things from validation:

  • The status of the name provided by the user.
  • The accepted usage (which might be the same).
  • The backbone taxonomic hierarchy for the taxa, so we can index at higher taxonomic levels. However, this is complicated as there is no guarantee that taxa will always hook into the backbone at the next level above their own.

For example, the accepted taxon Wanosuchus atresus is only hooked in at order level: it is accepted as a species, but its parent is Crocodylia as the genus is doubtful. Similarly, Goniopholis tenuidens is a synonym at species level but again has Crocodylia as a parent (and is considered a synonym for the family Goniopholidae).

In some cases, taxa can hook in at levels below their own: the species Brittonastrum greenei is a synonym of the subspecies Agastache pallidiflora pallidiflora.

The parent_taxon_level_analysis.R file in this repository contains some code to check this:

  • All accepted taxa map to a more nested parent but 5% map to a more nested parent more than one step up the hierarchy. The table below shows child taxon level as rows and parent taxon level as columns.
kingdom phylum class order family genus species subspecies variety form
kingdom 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
phylum 100 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
class 5 316 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
order 7 45 1327 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
family 2191 1339 4267 14423 0 0 0 0 0 0
genus 3427 4985 5584 6260 220735 0 0 0 0 0
species 1567 706 1529 696 8944 2449414 0 0 0 0
subspecies 41 7 3 2 832 268 200902 0 0 0
variety 53 10 0 26 2661 50 82914 32 0 0
form 12 4 0 4 815 18 19272 0 56 0
  • Only 77% of unaccepted taxa map to a parent at the next most nested taxonomic level and 4.5% map to a parent at the same or a less nested level, as in the example above.
kingdom phylum class order family genus species subspecies variety form
kingdom 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
phylum 22 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
class 0 14 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
order 0 5 32 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
family 21 157 481 3599 0 0 0 0 0 0
genus 8555 24242 25055 31010 185911 0 0 0 0 0
species 64 24 173 405 2142 1886329 121225 84 5 0
subspecies 3 0 1 0 151 77512 26266 13 0 0
variety 2 1 0 2 367 212954 50062 47 4 0
form 0 0 0 0 128 48126 10449 3 2 0

The two different APIs for offline and online usage work to try and get the same answer.

Online use

The GBIF API provides the species/match endpoint, which allows searching for names against the GBIF backbone taxonomy. More details are provided at the GBIF developer site, but the endpoint is handy as it accepts variables to turn off fuzzy matching (strict=true) and to check the name is at the stated rank (e.g. rank=species). For example:

The JSON data returned looks like this:

 "scientificName":"Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)",
 "canonicalName":"Panthera leo",
 "species":"Panthera leo",

With strict searching, here we have a single exact single match ("matchType":"EXACT") of the name Panthera leo at species level. If no exact match is found at the rank then instead we would get "matchType":"NONE" and possibly some "notes" with further details. Note that the match endpoint checks names against multiple fields but with strict matching this is almost certainly going to be to the canonical name field (scientific name minus authorship).

A search can bring in multiple matches, where a single canonical name is used in multiple synonyms: for example Zenicomus photuroides has one accepted use as Zenicomus photuroides Thomson, 1868 and about 10 synonyms with different authors.

The GBIF species/match API automatically looks for a single 'best' match - it will return the single taxon with that canonical name over a set of synonyms: the JSON data will contain "status": "ACCEPTED". The verbose=true argument to the API can used to also return those alternative matches but we don't use that information here as we don't expect authorship details. If there are only non-accepted usages, then the status will be something else: for example SYNONYM or MISAPPLIED.

For accepted taxa, this information is enough to get the information needed: we've got the accepted usage and a set of backbone taxa. The only things to be wary of are potential missing levels and the fact that taxon keys only go up to species level. In the example above the usageKey matches the speciesKey, but the backbone includes subspecies, variety and form levels. We can hook subspecies in, since the speciesKey is the least nested parent possible but variety and form do not have enough information to build the full chain without further queries. These levels are not supported by the checker.

When GBIF returns a synonym, there is more to be done. The JSON data from the species/match endpoint contains the usageKey for the search name. That probably means that the highest taxon key provided is the accepted taxon and the next highest is the parent. However, the program currently checks this using the species/{usageKey} endpoint, which explictly contains an acceptedKey and a parentKey which ought to match the previous information. For example:

Offline use

Validation against the local GBIF database works slightly differently as it is a straight match against the canonical name with no preference filtering. The equivalent database query is:

SELECT * FROM backbone
    WHERE canonicalName = 'XX'
    AND taxonRank = 'YY';

This will return all exact matches, including the less favoured alternatives that GBIF omits, so that preference is reimplemented by the program. The exact algorithm used by the API is unknown, so the program just looks for a single accepted use and then falls back to other statuses. Note that currently the SQL query is case sensitive where the API query is not.

In many ways, this is easier to use because the database rows contain both acceptedNameUsageID and parentNameUsageID fields that can be easily used to get the accepted name and hook the taxon into the higher taxonomy. Although canonical higher taxon names are provided, their taxon IDs are not, so higher taxa are saved into a set containing unique pairs of names and ranks and then added to the index when all taxa have been processed.


Rare edge cases include taxon names with two equally approved usages: for example, the genus Morus is an accepted usage for both mulberries and gannets. This kind of problem is described in the JSON "note" field and provided to the user. In these rare cases, an accepted usage would require a GBIF taxon ID to be provided to discriminate between them.